At the end of the 90s and the turn of the millennium, the 3-5-2 (and its variants) was at the center of some of the biggest successes in the game. However, the formation began to fade into obscurity from about 2003 onward, until it was brought back from the dead around 2008 and is now thriving again.
There are a number of stand-out sides from the end of the 90s that are worth mentioning in their use of the 3-5-2. The furthest we will go back is Berti Vogts’ Germany side of Euro 96. This was a 3-5-2 that transformed into a 5-3-2 in the defensive phase of possession. This 3-5-2 was notable for having Matthias Sammer playing as a libero in the heart of the defence. He was awarded the Ballon d’Or for it, becoming one of only three defenders in the history of football to be given that award – along with Franz Beckenbauer (1976) and Fabio Cannavaro (2006).
Other shining examples of the 3-5-2 during that time were Walter Smith’s Glasgow Rangers and Juventus’ star studded side led by manager Marcelo Lippi. Lippi’s Juve won five Serie A titles and reached 4 Champions League finals.
At the turn of the millennium, 3-5-2 was still in vogue. Klaus Toppmoller’s Bayer Leverkusen deployed a back three of Lucio, Jens Nowotny and Carsten Ramelow in a similar role to the one Sammer was deployed in in Euro 96. While using a 3-5-2, the different phases of the game called for different shapes to the team and Leverkusen often folded into a 4-1-4-1 but Ramelow often dropped back and acted as a third centre-back whilst the two wing-backs (Placente and Sebescen) marauded forward.
Two sides illustrated perfectly how beautiful this system can be. The first was the Brazil team of the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. The side is remembered for the return of Ronaldo and the incessant running of the two wing-backs – Cafu and Roberto Carlos. The final of this World Cup was perhaps the peak of the formation’s popularity as both sides in the final started with the 3-5-2. Brazil’s quality told in the end as they finished the match deserved winners against a German side that many believed surpassed their wildest expectations getting so far in the tournament (most notably aided by the heroics of Oliver Kahn until the final).
The second side that showed the strengths of the 3-5-2 was Fabio Capello’s Roma. This team in particular is quite important as it also brought to the fore the weaknesses inherent to the system. Led by Francesco Totti, they won the club’s third Scudetto in its history. Cafu again featured in this side, Candela played on the opposite flank with a midfield double of Emerson and Tommasi (or Cristiano Zanetti) supported by Totti as an attacking midfielder/trequartista with Montella and Batistuta upfront. Although Roma were stacked with world class talent in other areas of the pitch with the likes of Cafu, Totti, Emerson, Batistuta etc, the only real world class centre-back Capello’s Roma had was Walter Samuel – the likes of Zago and Zebina were decent players at the time but not stand-out talents. Also, the once world class Aldair had hit 36 years of age and it started to show. The shape of this side and the industry of the midfielders and wing-backs helped to create a team that was very difficult to defeat. As well drilled a unit as they were at the time, this was a collection of players that could also surprise opponents in the form of Emerson’s driving runs from deep, Zebina powering forward from the back and Walter Samuel’s underrated ability when it came to long range passing. In the 2001 league triumph, Capello’s Roma only suffered three defeats in what was at the time the most competitive league in the world as Serie A was brimming with world class players.
Expectations were sky high and as they went into the Champions League the following season, many Romanisti had hoped for a run into the late stages of the tournament, some possibly even seeing the Scudetto win as an indicator that Capello could lead them to European glory. After going through the first Group Stage, they entered the second stage in a group drawn against Liverpool, Galatasaray and Barcelona. The 3-0 home victory against Barcelona showcased the power of the 3-5-2. The Giallorossi stormed forward, pinning Barcelona back with their wing-backs thrusting forward and throwing bodies into the middle as the formation gave them superior numbers centrally. It was an emphatic win.
In the same tournament though, the frailties were also exposed. Roma travelled away to Liverpool with both sides needing a victory to qualify on the final matchday of the Second Group Stage. Michael Owen was injured so wasn’t fit to be included in the match squad. This circumstance blindly favoured Liverpool as it prompted Houllier to field a midfield heavy starting eleven with Smicer, Gerrard, Danny Murphy and Jari Litmanen all starting. Heskey was left up front as the lone striker. The Roma back three and midfield could not deal with the sheer energy from the Liverpool runners deep from midfield and rode out a very comfortable 2-0 win, knocking Roma out in the process. When Roma went behind, they looked bewildered as to what to do since Liverpool were only playing one upfront, leaving two Roma centre-backs spare all of the time.
The final major presence I can think of is Martin O’Neil’s use of it in Celtic’s journey to the UEFA Cup final in Seville in 2003. Mourinho’s Porto using a 4-3-1-2 however exposed the formation in that match and despite the fact that 3-2 indicates a close scoreline, the two Celtic goals came from isolated moments of magic from Henrik Larsson. O’Neil soon after started to operate a 4-4-2 using wing-back Didier Agathe as an orthodox right-back.
For the next five years, the 3-5-2 featured sporadically without much success. The only notable exception here was the use of it in Hassan Shehata’s Egypt side that won the African Cup of Nations three times from 2006, 2008 and 2010.
So why did the formation almost completely fall out of favour after being so successful?
There are a number of reasons:
1) The rise of the three pronged attack formation which would occupy all three centre-backs made it easy for teams to drag any back three completely out of shape.
2) More teams started adopting single striker systems such as Ancelotti’s Milan using 4-3-2-1, the increasing popularity of the 4-2-3-1 etc. These formations left two centre-backs spare. Something similar can be said of the increase of the 4-6-0 but this was much more rare.
3) Attacking full-backs have become the norm. When a system with attacking full-backs and wide-men playing in front of them come up against a formation using only one man per wing (like the 3-5-2 does with only one wing-back on each side), it makes it supremely easy for the side with the number superiority out wide to get in behind defence from the flanks.
4) With the death of the libero came the rise in the midfield anchor. Makelele’s role with Real Madrid at the turn of the millennium sparked the infamous “Makelele role” and it is now common to see teams field that one player in the midfield whose job it is to protect the defence and rarely venture forward. Busquets at Barcelona would be an example, as would Costinha with Mourinho’s Porto. Fifteen years ago many of these players instead would’ve slotted right into the heart of the defence.
5) It is demanding to find depth in the centre-back department if you are playing a back three and having six centre-backs in the squad may feel like saturation. The drop in quality between any one of these could be huge and in turn would practically defeat the purpose of the system.
And then after a short hiatus, it returned. I have been trying to pinpoint just who can take credit for its rebirth. It is difficult to credit only one man but for me it has to be Walter Mazzarri. Mazzarri has went a long way to re-popularizing his variation of the 3-5-2 with Reggina, Sampdoria and most famously Napoli. It is worth noting though that the 3-5-2 never really died in Serie A. The likes of Giampiero Ventura, Edy Reja and Gian Piero Gasperini all continued to field the formation during the mid-noughties when it had became extinct elsewhere in Europe. And the 3-5-2 is a common theme with Napoli ever since the club climbed up through the lower divisions of Italian football back into the top flight. However, Mazzarri’s Napoli showcased the formation at its deadliest, gaining notoriety when they knocked Manchester City out of last season’s Champions League Group Stages and scaring Chelsea in the last 16. The system created greater protection for the three relatively mediocre centre-backs in the form of Hugo Campagnaro, Paolo Cannavaro and Salvatore Aronica, whilst allowing the attacking trident of Cavani, Hamsik and Lavezzi enough creative freedom to pose a persistent threat without being over-burdened by defensive responsibility. The proof of the strength of Mazzarri’s style is in the pudding as despite the loss of Lavezzi to PSG in the summer, his men currently find themselves as the only true rival to Juventus in this season’s Serie A hunt.
Generally, as mentioned earlier, the 3-5-2 never vanished. And once coaches witnessed the undeniable strength of the formation its implementation grew again. Francesco Guidolin’s Udinese twice finished in the qualifying spots for the Champions League implementing a 3-5-2. In Roma’s famous title chase in the 2009/10 season where they hounded Mourinho’s treble winning Inter until the final matchday, Ranieri opted against the 4-2-3-1 to implement the 3-5-2 in the away game to Mazzarri’s Napoli in the belief that mirroring the opposition’s shape was the only way to combat it successfully. It did work as Roma were up 0-2 but two individual errors in second half injury time allowed Napoli to earn a 2-2 draw. Conte’s unbeaten 2011/12 Scudetto winning season with Juventus saw them deploy the same shape, with it being so successful among the large contingent of Italians in the Juventus first team that Italy national manager Cesare Prandelli also saw fit to use it to great effect in Euro 2012 with Italy reaching the final of that tournament despite being heavily written off beforehand. Stramaccioni’s Inter and Montella’s Fiorentina are just two more of the sides that have experimented with the 3-5-2 this season.
In Germany, both Jurgen Klopp and Joachim Loew have tried to utilise it. Klopp was a fan of the system and unsuccessfully used it in the 1-2 defeat at home to Schalke last season, playing Sven Bender in the libero role. Loew, in an attempt to fit Mats Hummels into defence without having to drop either one of Mertesacker or Badstuber, experimented with it in friendlies in the months leading up to Euro 2012.
In England, Wigan stared relegation in the eye as they faced a torrid set of fixture for the final third of the season. Roberto Martinez signed Chilean wing-back Jean Beausejour, changed their shape to a variation of the 3-5-2, defied the odds stacked against them and survived – defeating teams such as Liverpool (away), Arsenal (away) and Manchester United in that spell. Undoubtedly influenced by the success of it on the Italian peninsula, Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini has tried, with varying degrees of success, to get his players to adapt a similar style.
In his first season as the head coach of Barcelona, Guardiola often played in the shape of a 3-5-2. Dani Alves was at his most carefree as an attacking wing-back in those days, and in the absence of a true attacking left wing-back (such as Alba is now), Abidal would tuck inside from left-back and form a back three with Puyol and Pique to give Alves complete licence to burst forward and support Messi on the right-wing at that time. Yaya Toure acted as the holding midfielder but his role was different to the one Busquets performs now.
In South America, LDU de Quito won the Copa Libertadores in 2008 and then the Copa Sudamericanan in 2009 playing with a 3-5-2. Perhaps more famously, Uruguay reached the semi-finals of World Cup 2010 and then went on to win the Copa America in 2011 with that same shape under Oscar Tabarez.
After being written off in a period during the mid-noughties, it is clear the 3-5-2 is truly alive and kicking. The popularity of this formation could again rise dramatically over the next two years. If Juventus can be the first time in nearly a decade to venture to the latter stages of the Champions League using this shape, and if Uruguay or Italy can again defy the odds and reach the latter stages of the World Cup in 2014, we may just witness the beginning of the explosion of this beast which, not so long ago, was proclaimed extinct!